An island that ends with an exclamation mark! The conclusion of the Ile de Ré is both exciting and revealing. It is the magnificent 1854 lighthouse known as the Phare des Baleines, which protrudes nearly 200ft above the north-western tip of the island.
You spiral your way to the top on what the French call un escalier helicoidal – 257 steps that narrow with altitude, providing the climber with an excellent view of ground level just a short freefall below. Finally you are expelled to the viewing platform and the elements: your eyes will swirl just like the wind as you take in the view of the island – and the ocean that surrounds it.
To the west, the next stop (as it was for many emigrants who sailed past here) is Québec. Looking east, the island is laid out beneath you – providing an instant reminder of the many dimensions of a long, thin island, barely bigger than Manhattan. The Ile de Ré is laden with history and beauty.
When hiked, cycled and bussed around the island last week, I was in the privileged position of never having visited before. Therefore I was able to feast on the diverse dimensions of Ile de Ré and savour each new discovery.
To the left is the end-of-the-road village of Les Portes-en-Ré. It has a medieval church whose stones appear to be bulging with a middle-aged spread; the essential emblem for any self-respecting village of La Poste; a café or two; and a splendid little street called Impasse du Paradis – which rather sums the place up.
And to the south, a Reserve Naturelle boasts of 320 species of birds observed: it is a key pit stop for avian migrants between northern Europe and Africa. The common shelduck lives up to its adjective, while the little egret is also plentiful in spring and summer. You don’t come to this placid assemblage by accident, but trust me: it is worth the journey.
You could reach Les Portes by bus – but services, though reliable, are sparse. Instead, take the default means of transport on the island: two wheels. You reach Les Portes-en-Ré through a ripple of forest – by bicycle, on one stretch of the 60 miles of devoted cycle tracks. In the villages, the most commonplace road sign is the forbidding No Entry bar – with a subtitle of Sauf Cycles: get on your bike and you’re street legal.
You can rent a bicycle from one of many of outlets and thread your way through the vineyards, meadows and plane trees of an island of surprises. Plenty of landmarks are laid on to guide you. Look southwest to the distinctive, black-and-white spire. Once you spiral down the lighthouse steps, a track awaits to lead you to the community that the church protects: Ars-en-Ré, officially one of the exclusive club of “the most beautiful villages in France”. This organisation is a premier league of grace and charm. While all the villages on the island are in with a shout – whitewashed cottages with green or grey shutters comprise the vernacular – Ars-en-Ré adds a tranquil port.
If the Ile de Ré feels like an outpost, then Loix is a location one step beyond. It once comprised an islet on its own, but man’s activities have gradually welded it to the rest of the island. These activities continue today – as you witness when you walk or cycle from the modest mainland on a track across the salt marshes. The local alchemy involves coaxing fine salt from seawater: a sequence of shallow manmade pools concentrates the brine until the surface crystallises – allowing the sauniers to harvest the prized compound. I met a salt farmer on his way to work: “Soleil et vent”, he told me, are the essential components: sun and wind.
Happily, the Ile de Ré is caressed by plenty of both. It feels as warm and relaxed as the Mediterranean coast, thanks to the micro-climate that smiles on the island. The intensive yet gentle working of the sea is celebrated in the “Ecomusée” devoted to the salt industry outside the village of Loix – but I was as intrigued by the tall, handsome church that dominates the main square.
Beyond the beaches and the salt marshes, the Ile de Ré has a fascinating history: it was tussled over by England and France for centuries. One consequence was that the master fortifier, Vauban, was brought in to strengthen the defences from both land and sea. His prowess was such that the original mighty walls of the island’s biggest community, St- Martin, are still largely intact – and won the town a World Heritage listing from Unesco.
The harmonious harbour of St- Martin has a grisly history, since it was from here that convicts (including Alfred Dreyfus) were deported to various more miserable parts of the French empire. Today St-Martin radiates cobblestone chic; an excellent place to moor your yacht this summer, though if you have other plans for the vessel then the Hôtel de Toiras has just gained an extra étoile to become the island’s first five-star property.
La Flotte might sound like the French subsidiary of a Russian airline, but in fact it is another of those most beautiful French villages. If there is such a condition as “pretty village fatigue”, you won’t find it on the Ile de Ré, because the whitewash-and-shutters look is the only thing that is uniform about the different communities. La Flotte looks almost Dutch with neat rows of cottages around a long harbour, while St-Clément des Baleines, in all its bleached beauty, could be an import from the Aegean.
Even in the far east, when the mainland is almost close enough to touch, the Ile de Ré still supplies surprises. The ruined abbey of Les Châteliers stands starkly by the road, while around the curl of Rivedoux-Plage the kite surfers are preparing for take-off – sharing the crescent of beach with the oyster farmers. And, emulating nature with its elegant curve, the bridge to the mainland arcs towards La Rochelle – the island’s umbilical to the rest of the world.
Dramatic beginning, a fascinating middle and an exciting end: that is the story of the Ile de Ré.
By road, the bridge to the Ile de Ré has a toll of €9 outbound, increasing to €16.50 in the summer (late June-early September). From La Rochelle airport, a taxi can get you to the first couple of villages in 10 minutes flat, but fares can rise steeply – assume at least €80 to the far end of the island.
There is a bus service from the airport to La Rochelle Place de Verdun (costing €1.30). Change here for Les Mouettes bus services to Ile de Ré.
Buses are run by Les Mouettes. There are services every hour or so between La Rochelle and St-Martin, calling at all villages en route, for a fare of €4.40; beyond that, however, services are infrequent.
The Cycland organisation has partner cycle shops along the length of the island; see cycland.fr for details. A half-day (four hours) on a “comfortable” bike costs €9.
Options range from three-star campsites to the five-star Hôtel de Toiras in St-Martin (00 33 5 46 35 40 32; hotel-de-toiras.com). The writer stayed at the Hôtel du Port in St-Martin (00 33 5 46 09 21 21; iledere-hot-port.com), where a double room with breakfast costs €87.40.
What to see and do
Phare des Baleines: open 10am-7pm (longer hours in July and August, shorter from October to March); admission €2.80; 00 33 5 46 29 18 23; lepharedesbaleines.fr.